2012-02-27

Flip Sides of the Same Coin

At a recent installment of that conversation about who we are, where we're going, and what is ours to do, we were talking about evil.

Liberals are also called progressives – we believe in the progress. We have an optimistic view of human capacity. As liberal religionists, we stand against John Calvin’s idea of “total depravity” – that basic human nature is depraved, corrupt, utterly unable to do anything good on its own, and thus utterly dependent on unearned and unearnable grace from God. Instead, we view our ourselves as capable of learning and moral improvement.

The danger is that a rosy assessment of humanity’s goodness might blind us to the harm we do. James Luther Adams, that great 20th-century Unitarian theologian, went to Germany in 1935. As a result of what he saw, he gave us powerful teachings about evil -- the human capacity to do harm. He helped us understand better than we ever had before, that the way to respond to Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity is not to turn our backs on the ways we are doing harm, but to turn our faces toward the ways we are doing harm; not to deny the powers and structures of evil; but to confront them with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.

I asked the group whether they thought the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville had enough awareness of the wrongs going on. There seemed to be a general consensus that we don’t. There was also the sense that what we need from each other – when we gather for Worship and in various smaller groups – is not a deadening litany of details of human awfulness, but a message of hope and uplift.

So. Are we here to comfort the afflicted, or afflict the comfortable? Are we here to save the world, or to savor the world? Peace, beauty, joy? Or: confronting evil, toiling to ease suffering, sounding the alarm to let others know about the awful and preventable harms being inflicted? Inner peace – or outer justice? Both, of course – and they are flip sides of the same coin. There it is, in that final phrase of the second source: the transforming power of love.

When you first read that – "confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love" -- maybe you were thinking like this:
"There’s us: the good people, the right-thinking ones, and then there’s those evil oppressors. We good guys have to confront the bad guys. Instead of drawing our six-shooters, though, let us confront them with love and transform them."
Uh. No.

While the strategy of loving them into submission is arguably an improvement over shooting them, the whole “us” and “them” thing is simply a recapitulation of the very oppression we like to think we are resisting. When I am able to bring love to a situation, it is I who is transformed. Whether this transforming power transforms the other is a big maybe – and isn’t up to us. Love transforms those who love.

And we thus arrive at the comfort by facing full-on the affliction. We savor the world by saving it.

* * * * *
Part 4 of "Transforming Power"
Next: Part 5: "Only Love Is Big Enough to Hold All the Pain of This World"
Previous: Part 3: "Why Did Channing Go to Baltimore?"
Beginning: Part 1: "Our Unitarian Universalist Story: James Luther Adams"